How does the binary opposition of black and white used in Poe's Pym help the reader understand the world or how such a binary opposition fails to generate an understanding? What are some key events...

How does the binary opposition of black and white used in Poe's Pym help the reader understand the world or how such a binary opposition fails to generate an understanding? What are some key events that utilize the recurring theme of blackness/whiteness?

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M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

To properly (attempt to) understand the overall purpose of Poe in writing The Narrative of Arthur Gordon it is advisable to refer to Douglas Robinson's article “Reading Poe's Novel: A Speculative Review of Pym Criticism, 1950-1980,” published in Poe Studies in December, 1982 (Vol. XV, No. 2, 15:47-54).

According to the article, it is agreed that the novel's combination of themes is so strongly represented and clearly illustrated that it almost tells too much for unspecified purposes. In simpler language, you can equate Pym to a painting that has "so much" in it that, in the end, you just do not know what to make of it.

Like a very eclectic piece of art, the novel shifts in topics, pops in and out of dramatic dynamics, and elicits emotions of fear, excitement, anger, panic, salvation, and even primitive survival in the reader. Yet, it provides no conclusion, the narrative (narrator) is unreliable, and there is no redemption for anyone, as Pym himself is dies by the end of the novel and cannot "close" the general argument of the plot.

The binary opposition style that is ever-present in the plot of the novel not only involves blackness versus whiteness, but also civilization versus savagery, life versus death, and safety versus danger. All of these contradictory themes battle it out in the novel, but always resolve themselves. Yet, Robinson argues, none of the themes is transcendental enough to reach the reader at a near-cosmic level, except if the reader chooses to conduct a close reading under an existentialist perspective. Still, when (during the 50s and 60s) existentialist readings on Pym were attempted, they equally faded away as an academic new trend. They could not get it either!

This means that Pym is easily comparable to what in music would be chaos Jazz: a representation of every note, sound, meaning, style, and emotion for a period of time that rings loudly for as long as it lasts...but then disappears forever. There are no lessons learned, nor any parables set forward. The reader hardly learns anything, except if the reader chooses to do so. This is why Robinson argues

With all this unresolved, and possibly unresolvable, criticism on the novel seems to be largely a matter not of textual necessity, but of interpretive will.

Back to the binari opposition, here are the facts:

  • Blackness is represented by the natives of Tasalal and the Grampus' hold; by the caves, by the potential entombment of the characters being buried alive, by imprisonment, and by the unknown overall. During the time in the Grampus, Pym trapped himself in order not to get killed by the insane sailors; darkness was a motif that showed despair, and sadness, loss of freedom, and angst.
  • Whiteness is represented by the icy white reflections of the South Pole upon the land, which represents the "the light" of clarity and, maybe, even salvation from danger.

That the white light means good and the blackness of the story is always reflective of the negative, is clear. In fact, you could go as far as trying Pym from a colonialist perspective, and say that the natives' "darkness of skin" is a negative quality while the "educated" and "civilized" Pym and Peters are white characters who attempt to add a touch of civilization to the place.

However, the irony comes in that lines are not as sturdly free from smudging: we see instances where the wild natives display reasonable behavior, such as during their stay at the Jane Guy ship. Contrastingly, the civilized white men are the ones who display the most shocking behaviors, overall: while on the Grampus, the (white) sailors start a mutiny, go crazy, kill one another, go into instances of anarchy and, ultimately face starvation by engaging in...cannibalism. These wild behaviors are hence shared by both the "blacks and whites", showing that the underlying true nature of man corresponds to the Freudian view of the basic Id, or the essentially evil nature that we can all display when placed in a moment of desperation and loss of reason.

This being said, the binari opposition which is, simply put, the juxtaposing of two different things and their qualities, is not solid enough for readers to make any real understanding of what exactly would be their mutual conflict with one another. After all, both have the same capacity of normal and abnormal behavior. Both, "whiteness" and "darkness" show flaws in their make ups; none of them is committed enough to its own "whiteness" or "blackness" as one would expect of a typical novel that intends to bring out a strong point. And that is precisely what Douglas Robinson wondered: what WAS the point, as Poe (and not the reader) would have wanted to expose it.

Read the study guide:
The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym

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